Table of Contents
1. A Philosophical Approach to Postmodernism
1.2 Problems with Modernity and Modernism
1.3 The Modernism- Postmodernism Debate
2. Postmodernism and the Understanding of Politics
2.1. Michel Foucault
2.3. Implications for Political Science
2.4. Critical Postmodernism
Few people would deny that they are living in an age of great transformational processes. For centuries, if not millennia, the changes in human society had occurred slowly and usually did not affect the lives of the majority of the people significantly. That is not to say that the event of a war, a draught or another catastrophe did not have devastating consequences and indeed it were predominantly the ordinary people who suffered the most if such an event took place. The conducting of life however remained unaffected and continued as it had before. Scientific inventions were rarely made and if they did happen it was only a small privileged section of society benefiting from them. Whatever influenced the life of most people occurred gradually, making it both possible and easy to adjust. It could even be argued that because these influences did not have an impact during a person’s lifespan but developed over generations people failed to recognize them as changes at all.
This has profoundly changed in the age of globalization. While there are not many places left in the world without access to the Internet the forces of globalization have already shaped the economic, social, and cultural lives of hundreds of millions of people. The majority of them may not be able to clearly identify these changes but they would all agree that something is happening in their lives. The feeling evolving out of this is one of uncertainty; there are both greater opportunities and greater risks.
The previous era had already witnessed the transformation that industrialization brought about and it provoked sharp reactions. Industrialization not only transformed people’s lives it changed the character of warfare as well and the 20th century had to endure the consequences. Technology brought many improvements but people start to realize that there is a flipside to everything. In a somewhat dialectical sense we cannot take the benefits of something while at the same time hope to avoid the ramifications.
The world today has not just become smaller; it also turns out to be far more complex and diverse than any philosopher could have possibly imagined. Postmodernism can be conceived as a movement directed at both diversity and complexity but it may not provide a satisfying answer. Instead, its simple but yet powerful message may be that all we can do is accept the actual condition.
This paper attempts to outline the development of postmodernism as a reaction to Modernity, and to analyze some of the implications this reaction brings about.
1. A Philosophical Approach to Postmodernism
As the term postmodernism suggests it is a conceptual framework related in one way or another to modernism. It implies on orientation beyond modernism rather than against it. What can be expected when analyzing postmodernism is therefore neither a complete rejection nor a full endorsement of modernism. Instead we may find both enhancements and modifications which would be based on certain aspects of modernism identified as providing no or insufficient answers to human development. A logical starting point in an attempt to assess postmodernism is therefore a brief analysis of some of the important features of modernism.
Modernity is, simply speaking, the state of the present in its broadest sense. It should not be confined to a current perception of time and whatever is currently happening does not necessarily have to be modern. Modernity does, however, emphasize a focus on the present. In this sense, modernism can be thought of as the philosophy of the present. Contrary to this, one may prefer ideas or methods of the past and thus adopt a traditional approach. Others may indulge in theorizing about the future and develop utopian concepts. It follows from this that whatever may be modern now had been utopian earlier and is going to be traditional in the future. Although this simple truth cannot be denied modernism is far more complex. It is an orientation that embraces and influences all aspects of human activity. Thus, while there were modern elements throughout history the age of modernity could only begin after decisive developments with universal implications took place, and which were capable of transforming the human state of mind, the entire approach to the eternal question of what the reason and purpose of human existence is.
As with all great philosophical transformation processes it is impossible to exactly determine the beginning of the age of modernity. It is however possible to highlight a few distinctive developments which can be deemed essential for the transformation towards modernity.
The time period between the 14th and 16th century witnessed the “rebirth” (Renaissance) of ideas from classical Greek and Roman philosophy regarding the question what the true characteristics of humanity are. Humanism emphasizes the dignity of man and is based on moral values such as non- violence, tolerance and freedom of conscience. The focus on morality with its underlying assumption that humans are essentially noble creatures was challenged by Machiavelli who argued that because humans are neither good nor bad society should be constructed upon utility considerations rather than moral ones. Consequently, philosophers should concentrate on how humans actually are and not on theoretical prescription how they ought to be.
Parallel to these philosophical developments a wave of scientific discoveries and inventions occurred which shook the prevailing worldview in its foundations. Two of the most important contributions to the “scientific revolution” came from Copernicus and Galilei. While the former’s discovery that Earth revolved around the sun fundamentally challenged the Catholic Church the latter provided the fundamentals for the science of mechanics.
The 18th century was the time of “Enlightenment”, a philosophical process of intellectual emancipation emphasizing the necessity of reason and rationality. Humans should free themselves from the chains of ignorance and attempt to gain insight or enlightenment through the application of reason. In contrast to this, empiricism argues that knowledge should rather be obtained through experience. This belief provided the foundation for the scientific method and its fundamental principle that every theory had to be tested against observations from the existing, i.e. real, world. A strict interpretation of the empiricist framework led to the development of positivism which came to be known as the “ideology of science” because it called for an uncompromising application of the scientific method and concluded that only authentic knowledge would be true knowledge; i.e. a theory had to be positively affirmed before it could be accepted. Thus, the road to modern science was paved. Empiricism and positivism on the one hand and rationalism on the other provided the intellectual framework for modernism. While the former two streams greatly contributed to the rapid developments in the natural sciences in the 19th century and were in the 20th century considered to be equally important to make social sciences “scientific”, the latter mainly influenced philosophical advancement. Interestingly, empiricism and positivism have found their followers predominantly in the Anglo- Saxon world while rationalism prevailed in Continental Europe.
In the light of the different and diverse streams that constitute modernism is it possible to assess a concept such as the “project of modernity”? Indeed, it is. Despite the great variety of ideas, ideologies, and theories emerging out of modernism a common theme can be identified: The belief that humanity is capable of constructively engaging in the process of shaping its own destiny. The consequence of this belief is that humans will be more likely to try to improve or otherwise affect their current lives rather than accepting misery and despair in the hope of a better life in heaven. The dynamics resulting from this became a major characteristic of the age of Modernity.
1.2 Problems with Modernity and Modernism
The age of Modernity became an all- embracing transformation process because of the unison of both philosophical and scientific achievements. Thus, this process encroached upon all aspects of human social life making a reversal impossible. The magnitude and rapidity of transformation provoked a great variety of reactions ranging from rejection to disillusionment. Most of these reactions can be related to one or several specific developments during Modernity. Rationality and reason of the “Enlightenment” period led to the formation of the Romantic Movement at the beginning of the 19th century. Since rationality and reason were perceived as cold and sterile the emphasis was laid on human emotions and an aspiration for warmth and harmony.
The rapidly accelerating process of industrialization and all its ugly concomitant phenomena such as impoverishment and exploitation triggered deprecative, sometimes hostile and violent reactions. A complete renunciation of some of the core themes of modernism is represented in the philosophy of nihilism developed by Nietzsche. Nietzsche asserted that there is no such thing as an universal or objective truth and that history is but a cycle of recurrent patterns with neither progress nor an end. Because God did not exist humans will have to rely on themselves and the prospect of this notion is rather pessimistic.
The increasing mechanization and technological advancement in general provoked a theory which argued that the future of humanity is threatened by technology.
Furthermore, the first half of the 20th century witnessed the outbreak of two devastating World Wars which made a continuing belief in rationality or reason difficult if not impossible. Both theories in the tradition of empiricism- positivism and rationalism attempted to accommodate the obvious irrationality of human behaviour by incorporating interdisciplinary methods and ideas such as the psychoanalysis. After the end of the second World War the world became more and more diversified. The centre of the post- war world order was characterized by two antagonistic ideologies but at the periphery the emergence of new nation states most of which with strong ancient cultural traditions had far- reaching implications as well. It became obvious that modern theories were incapable of providing sufficient and satisfying answers to these developments notwithstanding that they had also failed to evolve a theory with universal applicability.
The final and decisive blow to the notion of objectivity in science came with an analysis of the processes of scientific theory- building by Thomas Kuhn. According to him, a theory is developed according to certain patterns which originate from the social environment rather than from the principles of the scientific method. The majority of the scientific community will usually tend to adhere to the dominant paradigm prevailing at that time, thus reducing both the aspiration for a critical analysis of the dominant paradigm and the prospect of success for new theories. There is however the possibility of a crisis which could occur because the dominant paradigm has become subject to challenge and revision. The crisis phase is characterized by a great variety of opinions and debates but eventually a new dominant paradigm will emerge.
The failure of modernist theories has provoked such a crisis and postmodernism is among the reactions although it has not yet become the new dominant paradigm.
 Johari 2006, pp. 90-92.